Driver 4: Parallel Lines

Heading home.

Yellow lines. To drivers they say, "stop and you're in trouble". They're the only things on the road I can easily respect! And while my knowledge of symbols is about as advanced as my plan for world domination (current status: I'll do it later), we can probably all infer something from this: I have no idea what the road markings are like in Driver 4. Gareth Edmonson, demoing, simply didn't stop long enough for me to get a good look. The only yellow lines in Driver 4 are the big fat ones that make up the back-to-back l's in the "Parallel Lines" logo. To me they say, "no parking". Apt.

Typically, he'd be hurtling along, switching in and out of the bumper-cam to demonstrate the sense of speed, lurching left and right as he weaved through traffic, the banshee tyres wailing as he threw the car almost sideways into any available alley. Where there was a low fence, a slight ground elevation bounced him over it. Where he brushed walls and cars, the speed-o-meter barely measured a snick. Fast and fluid. Like an extension of the original Driver, in fact. I've no more grown in stature as a symbolist in the last 200 words than I have dominated the world (status: need to Hoover first), but maybe... maybe those parallel lines could be a Roman numeral II. Driver... II? Are we going back in time? Actually that one I can do. This is 70s New York, so yes, we are.

But back to the point at hand. Where Driver 3 smacked you in the face with pop-up lamp-posts whenever you got behind the wheel, seemingly intent on making you stop, Driver 4 guns through them like it's chopping tomatoes. WITH A GUN. During a half-hour presentation of the PS2 version, Edmonson talked about how traffic density governed the difficulty level - while that was obviously true, it was Driver 4's object density that seemed to govern fun. Lamp-posts broke over the top of the car like matchsticks, boxes and crates popped like bubbles of debris, metal fencing practically danced out of the way and people tumbled over the bonnet like balloon animals.

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Er, we'll wait for the next cab.

I imagine that Driver 4 won't claim to be about driving realism. It's about driving fun, free from frustration. If you fail a mission, you can hit Select to respawn at the start again. You can preview mission objectives on the map screen without having to commit to their parameters. You can see all the starting points and mini-games strewn across the city of New York at a glance. You can tune up cars then save them off to the Memory Card to access them later. You can see why TK, Driver 4's cocksure 70s wheelman, can get away living a breezy life in a Blow-style bubble. Next to Driver's traditional front-man Tanner - an undercover cop blasting his way round a world that seemed designed to prevent him flooring it - he's an apposite choice.

Mission variety is promising. Edmonson demoed several, and each looked fun. One was a circuit race round a figure-of-eight, but the goal was to finish second; apparently TK's odds were shot because he kept winning. Another was a bike race round a park circuit. While there will be plenty of story-driven missions that involve delivering cars, ditching the cops, driving people to destinations and so on, Reflections is also working on a range of mini-games that take the form of street and circuit races, demolition derbies, hitman contracts, stealing to order - that kind of thing. There will be some that involve getting out of the car, but Edmonson says you'll mostly only do this to switch rides. When you are forced to shoot, the auto-lock-on/strafing should put pay to anything.

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Their headlights met over a crowded intersection.

If you get held up on a particular mission, you'll find the mini-games build up your cash stocks. Reflections expects people to spend 30-40 per cent of their time on these, and the cash earned can be invested in tuning. In the garage, you can see your car's felony rating, its current top speed, damage and equipped nitros, and then add decals, spoilers, or more direct engine enhancements to push it harder. And if you're still stuck despite the faster car, Edmonson points out that you'll almost always have more than one main story mission available to you.

Visually it's not as dramatically detailed as some areas of Driver 3, particularly as it was on Xbox, but it's certainly comparable to Grand Theft Auto - like a less toonified, slicker version in fact. The frame rate looks consistent, and pop-up is far less pronounced. In the section said to be closest to completion, draw distance was excellent. The cars themselves mash up nicely, and visual effects elsewhere all contribute healthily - shadows lengthen as the day and night complete their cycle, nothing just pops up ten feet in front of your car, and during his demo Edmonson would continually hurtle down alleyways swatting clutter out of his path and not once snagging on a concrete arch or pointless obstacle. He did hit the odd ramp, mind you, revealing the game's cutaway thrill-camera now so familiar to fans of the genre, but ramps are a good thing.

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GET BACK IN THE CAR.

At the start of the demo, Edmonson said Reflections had given Driver 3 an extensive post-mortem, deciding to chop or change anything the masses were unhappy with, and that the clear objective was to make a totally new game. In a broader sense, this clearly isn't a totally new game. It's familiar, homely; it's about lurching between startled cabs and dithering U-hauls, striping the pavement with tyre burns as you try to lose the heat on your tail. It's between alpha and beta now, we're told, so the physics need tweaking and there are some graphical issues, like tyres merging slightly with the road surface and unfinished cut-scenes. But it's much more exciting a prospect than I'd expected. The fact that Reflections' last game was Driver 3 provokes scepticism in everyone, but right now Driver 4 certainly looks fun. When it parks up, we'll be there waiting.

Driver 4: Parallel Lines is due out on PS2 and Xbox in early-to-mid 2006.

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